“Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine, I look right into the heart of good old New Orleans. It has given me something to live for.” – Louis Armstrong
Music already was an integral part of Greg Lambousy’s life by the time he was a high school student at De La Salle in the early 1980s.
Lambousy had been playing the drums for several years, and he jammed often with friends. He also began assembling a fantastically eclectic collection of vinyl records that he continues to refine to this day.
For every Tower of Power LP, there was one by The Byrds. The grooves of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass might be followed by a Haydn concerto or the glam of Roxy Music. There were New Orleans musical legends in the mix, too, with The Meters and The Neville Brothers particular favorites.
And there always was Louis Armstrong. Nestled in Lambousy’s many stacks of vinyl is a record featuring a suave looking Satchmo pictured on a beach in near silhouette. There’s another record with the more traditional Armstrong look — trumpet to pursed lips, with eyes as wide as saucers and cheeks blown out like a chipmunk.
For a teenager with an appetite for all things musical, it was hard for Lambousy to escape Armstrong’s influence, especially since they were born in the same place. Now, as Director of the New Orleans Jazz Museum, Lambousy still cannot escape Armstrong’s legend.
He’s there in the cornet on display on the museum’s second floor (it’s the instrument Armstrong learned to play when he was an adolescent at the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs.)
He’s there in the signature handkerchiefs that Satchmo famously used to mop his sweaty brow during concerts.
He’s there in hundreds of still photos and recordings, and he’s there again when jazz artists from around the world perform “What a Wonderful World” or “When the Saints Go Marching In” in the state of the art concert space on the third floor of the Old U.S. Mint where the jazz museum is housed.
Armstrong will feel even more present when the annual Satchmo Summerfest returns to the Old U.S. Mint building on Aug. 4-6.
More than 50,000 visitors from around the globe are expected to attend the three-day festival, which will feature guest lecturers and Armstrong scholars, a host of jazz acts performing his music, as well as the traditional festival trappings of food and drink (including Satchmo’s personal favorite of red beans and rice.)
It’s the largest outreach event of the year for the museum, and it’s all thanks to the non-profit French Quarter Festivals group — and with a healthy helping of the legendary Louis Armstrong, of course.
Lambousy said Armstrong is without question New Orleans’ most enduring (and endearing) entertainer and likely the city’s “favorite son.” In a town that boasts artists from Dr. John and Lil Wayne to Aaron Neville and Harry Connick Jr., that’s saying a mouthful.
“He was a great musician, but he was born in very difficult circumstances,” Lambousy said. “He was an eternal optimist. His energy and his optimism drew people to him.”
Armstrong’s story is a classic tale of rags to riches, though his true wealth was measured in worldwide admiration rather than dollar signs. He was born in the Back o’Town area near where the Mercedes Benz Superdome stands. It was a hard-scrabble area in the 1910s, filled with prostitution and poverty. Armstrong was sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs several times for general delinquency and most notably for firing a pistol into the air one New Year’s Eve. It was there he began playing the cornet and eventually the trumpet. He was playing in several bands in clubs around New Orleans as a teenager, and jazz legend Joe Oliver was a mentor.
Oliver provided guidance Armstrong needed and his career flourished. The protégé replaced the mentor in legendary Kid Ory’s band in 1919. At 21, he set out for the bright lights of Chicago where he began playing with Oliver’s band which had become the toast of that town. Soon, Satchmo (or Pops, as many friends called him,) led his own popular bands. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s and in 1943, he settled permanently in the New York City borough of Queens.
By the 1950s, Armstrong was one of America’s most recognizable figures, not only in music but in all entertainment. His friendly disposition made him a musical and cultural ambassador for the U.S. as he traveled through the years to countries around the globe, including Africa, Asia, and many in the Communist bloc. When he died in 1971, he left behind a legacy of 19 Top 10 songs, a dozen Hollywood motion pictures, and one of the most recognizable sounds and likenesses of the 20th Century.
“Louis worked hard and he created his own opportunities,” Lambousy said. “He was a very generous person. He was always giving things away and trying to find a way to help other people. By doing that, he made a lot of friends. That was definitely part of his appeal.”
But the music drove his success.
“He definitely was cutting edge,” Lambousy said. “But he could change genres. He adapted. He was early jazz, and he was popular music. He was so much. The fact he could adapt and shine in so many areas is testament to his greatness. There aren’t many people who could survive from the 1920s to the 1960s and be as popular as he was and as he remains.”
Even in death, Armstrong’s legend endures. The New Orleans International Airport was renamed in 2001 in celebration of his 100th birthday. Satchmo Summerfest began the same year and annually coincides with Armstrong’s birthday (Aug. 4, 1901.) The popular festival returns to the Old U.S. Mint building this year after a one-year stint at Jackson Square.
Lambousy is looking forward to the return. He noted that Satchmo never forgot about New Orleans, even when he was an international superstar.
“I think it’s fair to say New Orleans wouldn’t be the same without him,” Lambousy said. “He’s done so much for the city. Jazz is one of our biggest exports. He always let people know this was his home. New Orleans is indebted to Louis Armstrong.”
A day pass for persons 13 and older to attend Satchmo Summerfest is $5. For more information on the festival, including a schedule of guest speakers and musical acts, go online to fqfi.org/satchmo.